One focus of the research team is watching for outbreaks of variants in rural areas where they could fester, Ngere said.


At a camel slaughterhouse, a race to find the virus

Dromedaries are an essential part of life in northern Kenya, where Indigenous Kenyans spend up to half of each year with their camel herds walking hundreds of miles in search of water and grazing lands.

The towering one-humped creatures serve as a vital source of meat, fur and milk products in arid regions where other livestock struggle to survive. But they also provide a reservoir for the MERS virus.

In 2014 researchers identified antibodies to the MERS virus in blood samples taken from camels in Kenya, including some samples dating back to the 1990s. That finding established that coronavirus had been lurking among the nation’s camel population, but Ngere said it raised even more questions about why the region had not been devastated by the disease like the Middle East was.

Of the 2,605 laboratory-confirmed human cases of MERS reported to the World Health Organization since 2012, nearly 2,200 occurred in Saudi Arabia. In April 2014, the country experienced its single deadliest outbreak when 255 people in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, were confirmed to have contracted the virus, more than the global total of the prior two years. That outbreak led to 93 deaths, researchers say.

“It essentially showed that this virus was circulating in East Africa long before the first case, the first human case, was seen in the Middle East,” Ngere said.

In addition to driving the desire to understand the public health threat of MERS-CoV in Africa, the discovery of the antibodies in camels also launched the ongoing hunt for human cases of MERS in Kenya.

The WSU researchers located the first, and so far only, three cases of MERS among humans in Kenya just a few years after beginning their search in 2018, with a study focused on camel-owning families in Marsabit County. The drought-stricken region roughly 300 miles north of the capital city of Nairobi is home to the majority of Kenya’s nearly 5 million camels, according to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.

In the search for the virus – and other human patients – researchers are investigating one of Kenya’s largest camel slaughterhouses. Dr. Andrew Karani said the slaughterhouse in the working-class town of Isiolo was an ideal location to focus their human testing because it employs workers of all ages and genders.

The slaughterhouse is an essential part of the community and a hub for every level of the industry, from transportation to farming to vendors and restaurant owners. The cinderblock slaughterhouse sits roughly 500 yards from an open marketplace where livestock are bought, sold and traded.

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